'Empty trash bag' spotted orbiting Earth

Actually, it's probably a leftover piece of a rocket, but astronomers have never before seen an object like it orbiting so far out.

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Eric Mack
2 min read
More than 500,000 objects

Space debris seen from outside geosynchronous orbit.


It's not quite another moon, but Earth is being orbited by an artificial satellite that reminds astronomers of... an empty trash bag.

The Asteroid Terrestrial-impact Last Alert System (ATLAS) telescope in Haleakala, Hawaii, first spotted it Friday. The object now has the designation "A10bMLz," which is both unimpressive for an Earth satellite and yet not bad for something reminiscent of a plastic bag.

The Northolt Branch Observatories in London then took a look at the object and reported via Facebook that it's extremely lightweight with a high area-to-mass ratio, just like a big piece of plastic wrap.

"This suggests that it is what is known as an 'empty trash bag object': A piece of light material (probably metallic foil), left over from a rocket launch. It is not clear yet when A10bMLz has been launched."

Earth Satellite A10bMLz.

A10bMLz: An "empty trash bag object" A10bMLz is an Earth satellite, first observed at ATLAS-HKO, Haleakala on January 25th. It is orbiting the Earth in an unusual, retrograde orbit (i=121°), at an average distance of 262,000 km (0.68 lunar distances). The orbit is highly elliptical, with a perigee just 600 km above the Earth's surface, and an apogee 1.4 times as far out as the Moon. At the time of our observations, A10bMLz was 293,000 km from Earth. The available data shows that this object has an extremely high area-to-mass ratio of 35 m²/kg, indicating that it is extremely light-weight (with a mass of less than 1 kg), but several metres across. This suggests that it is what is known as an "empty trash bag object": A piece of light material (probably metallic foil), left over from a rocket launch. It is not clear yet when A10bMLz has been launched. The small mass makes A10bMLz susceptible to solar radiation pressure, changing its orbit chaotically on time scales of days to weeks. As a result, it is currently impossible to reliably predict its future trajectory. It is possible that A10bMLz will reenter Earth's atmosphere within a few months. "Empty trash bags" have been found previously, but this is the first one in such a distant orbit. Northolt Branch Observatories Qhyccd

Posted by Northolt Branch Observatories on Saturday, January 26, 2019

Astronomers have spotted "empty trash bags" before, but this one has an unusual orbit that brings it within 600 km (373 miles) of Earth's surface at its closest and takes it 1.4 times the distance to the moon at its farthest point. Similar objects have typically kept much closer to Earth.

The small mass of A10bMLz means it can be easily pushed around by just the radiation pressure coming off the sun, changing its orbit unpredictably. Astronomers think it could burn up in the Earth's atmosphere within a few months. 

Good thing it was able to have its American Beauty moment in the spotlight first.

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